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Susan Rae Helgeland, Published September 27 2009

Breaking the cycle of silence

I want to applaud Tammy Swift on her article (Sept. 22) “Rising above the hurt.” The careful and sensitive language she employed describing the act of suicide makes that article worthy of its place on the front page of The Forum. This treatment of a topic so very sensitive for many of us gives me hope that some day soon the stigma of mental illness will be reduced and suicides will be prevented.

Here is one example of Swift’s professional handling of this topic. She writes, “No one mentioned he died by suicide.” The common expression would be “he committed suicide” as if it were a crime or a sin.

Swift writes about a survivor of suicide, Tavia Smith, who suffered for years because a pastor told her that her father’s death by suicide was an unforgivable sin. For many years she imagined her father languishing in hell and felt ashamed to talk about it, even to members of her own family. Now, however, Smith has the courage to talk about the suicides of her father, grandfather and great- grandfather, indicating that they were victims of a serious medical condition called depression.

Mental health professionals view the vast majority of suicides as caused by depression, not a personal choice or a personal weakness. Depression, in fact, can be so painful in some cases that individuals may feel the only escape is death. Depression is a disorder of the brain just as one might have a cancer of the lung, an occlusion of the arteries, diabetes, etc.; they are all chronic diseases, and none are chosen. As a family is not embarrassed to say their father died from a heart attack, so it should not be shameful to say their father died from major depression.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Community Walk will be held at Lindenwood Park, south Fargo today. Registration begins at 1 p.m. Mental Health America of North Dakota encourages all to attend and support this important fundraising event.

As a representative of MHAND, it pleases me to say that 90 percent of people diagnosed with mental illness can participate in their own recovery. Although we have come so far in the treatment of mental illness, too few actually seek help because of fear and shame. While we fight mental illness as a disease, at the same time we are forced to fight the stigma that unfortunately surrounds suicide and mental illness.


Helgeland, MS, is executive director, Mental Health America of North Dakota.